Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Recipe of the month: Lapin à la moutarde

All right.  I know I’m going to lose a lot of you here, but bear with me.  This month’s recipe is lapin à la moutarde, otherwise known as rabbit with mustard.
     To most Americans, the idea of eating a bunny, a poor little Peter Rabbit, or a Thumper, is just too much to bear.  My father was a hunter, so I grew up eating rabbit, pheasant and even squirrel (which does indeed have a nutty taste).  Wild rabbit, on the other hand, has a fines herbes taste, especially in France where the wild lapin de garenne of Provence thrives on the thyme and rosemary growing wild everywhere.  Unless you get your rabbit from a hunter, though, the rabbit you’ll find at the market is the farm-grown variety and far less “gamey”.  It tastes a bit like chicken.  (Well, turkey actually.)
     You may also be relieved to know that it’s a lean meat.  Low in fat and cholesterol, high in protein, raised without hormones, usually containing no stimulants, additives or preservatives.  And it’s easily digested, which is why the American Heart Foundation and the American Medical Association recommend it for people on special diets.  Have I got your attention now?
     One of the ingredients for this dish, crème fraîche, is something sold everywhere in France but seldom found on the shelves of American supermarkets, although you can usually find it in specialty stores.  Sour cream is too sour and may curdle when cooked.  Heavy cream is too thin.  And neither gives the same result.  One solution is to heat (not boil) one cup of heavy cream and then mix it with 1 teaspoon of buttermilk and let it stand at room temperature until the mixture thickens (6 hours or more, depending on the room temperature).   Don’t worry about it going bad; this is how yoghurt is made.   But once it thickens, you have to refrigerate it and then you can keep for up to a week.  Hint:  the rest of the buttermilk can be used for a wonderfully rich chocolate cake.  Second hint:  if you did find crème fraîche and didn’t use all of it, you’ll be happy to know that crème fraîche, unlike sour cream, can be beaten into whipped cream.
     So if you’ve gotten over your aversion cooking up one of those cute little critters, give this a try.  It’s a hearty meal for those increasingly nippy autumn days.

Rosemary growing wild in the garrigue of southern France

  • a 3-lb rabbit, cut in pieces
  • 3 T butter
  • 1 T peanut oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 3 minced shallots
  • 2 branches of fresh rosemary
  • 4 T Dijon mustard
  • 2 T crème fraîche 
  • 2 egg yolks
  • juice of ½ lemon

- Brown the rabbit pieces evenly in the oil and butter over fairly high heat.  (You can play around with the proportion of oil and butter to suit your tastes and diet, but using some butter will give a better flavor and the oil keeps the butter from going brown.)
- Lower the heat and add the rosemary, shallots, salt and pepper.  Simmer covered for about 30 minutes or until the meat is tender, adding a bit of liquid chicken stock or cognac if it goes dry before it’s cooked.
- Remove the rosemary.  Blend the Dijon mustard with the crème fraîche, egg yolks and lemon juice.  Mix well and pour over the rabbit.
- Simmer over very low heat for about 10 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly.

Serves 4.
Accompany with rice or boiled potatoes to make the most of the sauce.

You can see it’s an easy recipe:  only 5-10 minutes of preparation for 40 minutes cooking.  You can make it even easier by eliminating the egg yolk and lemon juice, but I think it has more layers of flavor this way.  Or you could make it more rustic by using a bit of moutarde à l’ancienne (with the mustard seed in it):  3 T Dijon to 1 T ancienne.  And don’t worry about it being too strong because cooking the mustard removes a lot of the “bite”.

Recommended wine:  a red burgundy (Savigny-les-Beaune) or a dry chablis if you prefer a white wine

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Saga of the Seagulls

After two different ferries from Weymouth to Saint Malo via the islands of Guernsey and Jersey, a trip requiring the greater part of daylight, I arrive back in France just in time to miss the last train out... to anywhere.  So I’m booked into the hotel right across from the station, poised for an early train in the morning to get back to Paris.
     Having had a dinner of fish ‘n’ chips with mushy peas on the last ferry, I’m ripe for a shower and then bed.  The hot water feels good but I can’t help but wonder what all the seagull noise is about.  I mean, we’re on the ocean, okay, I got that.  But this is industrial strength gull-ness.  They seem to be circling the hotel.
     I lie down in bed to watch something on TV when all of the sudden I see a shadow run past on the terrace just outside my open French door (pun not intended).  As I’m four flights up - and naked (remember the shower?) - that seems both incredible and unsettling.  So I slip into something comfortable and go look outside.
     Except for a gull perched on the roof one flight up, keeping an eye on me.  So I go back inside and lie back down on the bed.
     After about five minutes, I catch a glimpse of something scurrying by again on the terrace.  I rush over just in time to see a little ball of grey feathers scurry back past and disappear around the divider between my room and the room next door.
     In spite of the seagull, who has flown down from the roof and is now perched on the railing next door, I peek around the divider to discover... that the ball of feathers is a baby seagull.  The adult is obviously the mother or father, and is quite distraught that I’m anywhere near her/his fluffy progeny.
     Obviously, this baby has fallen out of a nest up on the roof.  Or failed to get any farther in its first flight than one story down.  And now has no way of getting back to the nest.
     A man in the building next door is also watching.  He can’t see the baby from where he is, but complains about all the noise.  He tells me it’s been going on for two days already.  I tell him about the baby gull, and he says “that would explain it”, then goes back to the World Cup on TV.

I decide that it’ll be hard to sleep with all this going on, and I’m severely in need of sleep.  Also that there’s no way the baby is going to learn to fly to safety before it starves to death.
     So I go downstairs to the front desk to report that there’s a baby seagull on the terrace and it needs to be rescued.
     The night clerk, who was so welcoming when I arrived, looks at me as if I’ve sprouted a second head.  He asks me if it’s a mouette or a goéland*.  Not knowing the difference (there really isn’t any), I tell him it’s too little to tell but that the parent bird has grey wings and a yellow beak, if that helps.
     After a moment’s hesitation, he asks me what he should do about it.  I give the standard answer, which any cat owner living near trees knows well: “You could call the firemen.”
     He does.  And they tell him they don’t do seagulls.  That he should call a veterinarian.  And they give him a number.
     The night clerk gets an answering machine that tells him to call the vétérinaire de garde, the vet who’s “it” during off-hours (and we’re Sunday night!).  When he gets the vétérinaire de garde, she tells him she doesn’t do seagulls and to call the police.  And promptly hangs up.
     Although neither of us believes that the police in a port city on a Sunday night - and during the World Cup to boot - will come to rescue a baby seagull, he calls nonetheless.  And I chicken out, slipping into the elevator as he explains about the rooftop nest and the baby and the... The elevator doors close and soon I’m back in my bed.
The hotel across from the train station

About a quarter of an hour later, someone knocks at my door.
     I throw my Comfortables back on and open the door, to find... a very large policeman.
     “Where’s the seagull?” he asks, curtly.
     I usher him to the terrace, where there is neither seagull on the railing nor grey ball of feathers in sight.
     “It runs back and forth between the terraces of the rooms,” I apologize.
     He turns without a word and leaves the room, joining his two burly colleagues left in the hall.  I guess seagulls are not usually part of his job profile.
     Minutes later I hear a lot of gull cries and raised voices. And see flashlight beams, given that the sun has set since all this started.  I peek around the divider to see police posted on the farthest terrace... and the ball of grey feathers headed my way, until it sees me.  I put the chair by the opening, to discourage it, and decide it’s best I just watch my program and leave the police to it.

After about 15 minutes, everything seems to settle down.  Being curious by nature, I head back down to the front desk.
     Only to learn that there was not one baby but two.  The police have “arrested” them.  And released them in the lot behind the restaurant.  Impossible to see them in the dark, so I commend the night clerk for finding a solution, say I hope he doesn’t hate me for all the disturbance and go back to bed.

The next morning, over breakfast, I watch the two babies drink from a puddle outside and scurry back and forth, this time on firm ground. The parents are still perched up on the heights, keeping a watchful eye.  Where they stay until I check out.
     That’s the end of my story.  So you’ll just have to write your own dénouement.  I know I have.

* Goéland is the French approximation for the Breton dialect’s “gwelan”, which means to cry (as in weeping).  The Bretons felt that seagulls were crying.  Mouette comes from the word “mawe”, plus the diminutive -ette, its origin being from Normandy, the province next to Brittany.  It again describes the mewing sound the gulls make.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Les voyages forment la jeunesse

The French have a saying:  Les voyages forment la jeunesse.  It means that traveling broadens the mind.  The saying limits it to youth.  But I wouldn’t be so categorical.
     During my last stay in France, I took several trips.  Several voyages.
TGV Paris-Rennes
     On the first one, I took a train from Paris to Saint Malo, to visit old friends.  As I never travel without something to read, I was fishing out my book-of-the-moment when the gentleman in the seat next to me spotted the title and said “Good choice”.
     As he hadn’t spoken to me before that, beyond a nod of the head upon sitting down, I was a bit surprised.  It turns out he was a professor and liked the author, Daniel Pennac.  “He’s quite poetic in a very modern way,” he critiqued.
     That led into a lively and fascinating conversation about literature, politics, economics, travel... which eventually disturbed the grumpy lady sitting in front of us who must have thought train cars should be like holy chapels:  silent as a tomb.  She rose up from her seat, turned toward us and commanded us in a chilled voice to stop bothering everyone, although she was the only one who seemed even to have noticed our conversation.  We looked at each other, amazed.  Then we both shrugged in unison and I plunged back into my book, he into his newspaper.
     We whispered softly on and off after that but it wasn’t the same.  When the train reached Rennes we both got off.  He knew I was going on to St. Malo and wished me a good crossing and a lovely week-end.  “I hope we meet again,” he said and walked off toward the exit as I crossed the platform to my other train.
     He was a lovely man and I should have gotten his address.

Sailing out of St. Malo
The next nice person I met worked on the ferry I took over to England. Well, on one of the ferries, the second one, from the island of Jersey to Weymouth via Guernsey.  My assigned seat was near his travel assistance post and I asked him a few questions.  After Guernsey things got quiet and his answers got longer until he was asking me questions.  He was very helpful and quite friendly and I learned a lot about ferry services.
Condor Ferries
     For instance, that the ferry used to go directly from Weymouth to St. Malo, but as the crew turns right around and heads back, that made for 18-hour days.  So now they just do part of the route and their days only total 10 hours.  Or that the ferry boats used to break down more often because they were always running and it wore out the engines.  Or that the hydrofoils were taken out of service because they were fast, yes, but they could only handle foot passengers and not cars.  Plus much, much more.
     When 48 hours later I boarded the return ferry, my assigned seat was again in the same general area:  near the restaurant and the information center.  And when the staff showed up, the head steward was that same jovial man.  So we had another fact-filled crossing to Jersey, which made the 3+ hour trip go much faster.
     He wished me well as I walked off toward the gangplank, then waved as I headed for Ferry 4 of the week-end.  He’d told me he liked his job.  And it showed.

Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle Airport
But trains and ferries are all relatively short ordeals compared to transatlantic flights.
     As I sat in the “holding area” for my flight back to the States, the quiet lady next to me asked me something and we started a conversation that lasted for the entire hour of the plane’s delay.  She was a schoolteacher from Tunisia and she was traveling to Texas to visit her daughter doing a PhD there.  She hadn’t seen her for two years and was looking forward to it.  Her flight to Paris had left at dawn so she’d been up since 4 am and still had a full day’s travel ahead of her.  She was worried our delay would cause her to miss her connection in Detroit, but when I looked at her reservation it wasn’t leaving until 8 pm local time.  I assured her that a three-hour layover in Detroit was more than enough time.
Terminal 2E
   She told me it was her birthday and I wished her many happy returns, adding that it was a strange way to spend a birthday.  We passed the time talking about our children and jobs, places we’d visited and others we’d like to see.
   A bit later she mentioned how the Tunisian revolution has changed her country.  And changed teaching.  When I asked her how, she said that, like most of the population, her high school students seemed to feel that their new-found democracy meant doing only what they wanted.  She lamented that it was difficult, if not impossible, to teach them and even harder to discipline them. Many students talked back and did their homework only if they wanted.  If they got bad grades, their parents appeared, demanding the grades be changed.  On the other hand, if she asked the parents to come in, most of the time they refused but complained to the principal about the inconvenience, whether they came or not.  “Parents come in two sorts,” she explained.  “Either they were important in the old regime and now are surly because they no longer have privileges.  Or they are now important and throw it in your face.”  And yet she seemed very calm about it all, though with a layer of sadness.  Her husband is also a professor and they’re both eagerly awaiting their retirement in a few years.  Too many years.  I told her American teachers sometimes had the exact same problems.
Paris from the sky:  (left to right) Tour Montparnasse,
Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower
     She was a pretty lady, with her black hair, sad eyes and warm smile.  But she suffered from Parkinson’s, albeit mild, and so she was traveling with assistance in the form of a wheelchair to the plane.  I asked if I might board with her to carry her purse and small bag so that she would have both hands free to negotiate the aisle to her seat.  As I walked further back to mine, I told a flight attendant that the lady in 18-J was having a birthday and she said she’d find something special for her.  Later on in the flight, I went forward to see how she was doing.  She told me how nice Air France was because somehow they’d noticed it was her birthday and had presented her with a trousse de toilette, one of those toiletries kits they give out in first class.  She was so pleased I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had tipped them off.
     When we arrived in Detroit, I waved good-bye to her as I passed and wished her well for the rest of her flight.  I’m sure her daughter was happy to see her when she finally arrived in Texas.

Versailles, from the plane
The last person who made my travels pleasant was my seatmate on that flight.  The next best thing to having an empty seat next to you on a transatlantic flight is having a pleasant person inflicted upon you. My seatmate was a very tall but trim Dutchman who proved to have just the right blend of chattiness and privacy.  What’s more, he got up from his aisle seat often enough so I didn’t have to climb over him.
     He was an engineer on cruise liners and met his American girlfriend on one of those ships.  Now she’d packed it in, but he hadn’t.  He was coming over to meet her family and as they were going through Ann Arbor, her alma mater, he offered me a ride home.  After a day touring the campus, they were going up to Traverse City, where her family lived.  I suggested she take him to Sleeping Bear Dunes.  “She has it all mapped out,” he said, not without a bit of fatigue to add to the trepidation of meeting her family.
     What time we didn’t spend watching movies, we spent discussing different parts of the world.  I told him about holding the steamship France up for 20 minutes off the Statue of Liberty.  He told me about some of his cruises - the fjords, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean.  The conversation flowed easily and I hope he has now been vetted and accepted by The Family.  I’d be curious to know where the two of them end up.

All of those trips were made far more bearable by the company I unexpectedly kept.  So you see, les voyages forment la jeunesse, even when you’re no longer young in years but only in mentality. France, Tunisia, Holland... we’re all just people looking to get from Point A to Point B as pleasantly and painlessly as possible.

N.B.  All the photos are mine, even the aerial ones.  So if you see a nut with a window seat and a camera, say hello.  That will be me.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Moules Marinières

Summer’s over and September is here, the first of the months with an “r” ... Yes, that’s for oysters, but it holds true for any shellfish.  Eating oysters only in months with an “r” in them is an idea left over from the days of poor refrigeration, when you could take your life in your hands by eating something capable of spoiling so drastically in such a short time when temperatures soar.  Muscles are great on a hot summer day at the beach, but mussels... not so much.
     (I'm told it's also a question of the months without an "r" being the months when oysters and other shellfish procreate... such as their procreation is.)
     Mention moules and people tend to think Belgium.  But mussels are actually a favorite dish all along the French coast and even far inland, where the Léon de Bruxelles franchise offers Parisian diners a wonderful alternative to other fast food joints.  AND the mussels even come with fries!
     There are many moules recipes.  The Belgians cook theirs with onion, white wine and celery.  For moules à la crème, add rich thick crème fraîche to the broth, or even curry!  One recipe I discovered years ago in a little guinguette on the Seine River downstream from Paris was moules catalanes, from the Barcelona coast, and it called for a lot of finely chopped garlic, a dash of tabasco and a bit of tomato paste in addition to the white wine.  But moules marinières is what you find the most often in France.  And it’s dead easy.
     Mussels seem to be sold by the pound in America.  Count about 1 to 1½ pound per person, which isn’t too much if you consider that the shell is the heaviest part of the mussel.  On the coast you may find them sold by the quart; one quart usually weighs 1 1/4 pound.
     You don’t need to add salt to this recipe because mussels are salt-water shellfish and they come by their salt naturally.
     When the moules are served, pick a small mussel shell to use as pinchers to eat the rest.  You won’t burn your fingers in the hot broth and everyone will think you’re a real pro.

  • 6 pounds of mussels
  • ½ c minced shallot
  • 2 c dry white wine
  • 6 large sprigs of parsley
  • 3 T butter
  • freshly ground pepper
  • minced parsley to decorate

First and foremost, if you find any shells that are open, prick the mussel inside with a sharp knife.  If the mussel is still alive, the shell will close; if it doesn’t move, it’s dead and you need to throw it out.  Seriously.
     Most mussels now come cleaned, but if not, simply scrub them with a vegetable or nail brush to remove any dirt.  If there are any barnacles on the shell just scrape them off with a knife, along with any seaweed “beard”.  Usually just rinsing the mussels well in cold water and rubbing them against each other is enough to clean them.  You may get a tiny bit of sand at the bottom of the broth once the mussels are cooked, but you can strain that off.  Some American cookbooks tell you to soak the mussels so they open and lose their sand, but then you lose that saltwater taste.  They won’t lose that much sand anyway, and any sand that is left you can strain off from the broth once they’re cooked.

- Mince the shallots.
- Put the cleaned mussels in a large pot with the white wine to create some steam.
- Add the shallots and the sprigs of parsley.
- Cover tightly and cook over high heat for about 5 minutes, shaking frequently without opening the pot so that all the mussels steam open.
- Put the cooked mussels in a large serving bowl, strain the broth, stir in the butter, and pour it over the mussels.
- Sprinkle with some chopped parsley and freshly ground pepper.
- Serve with French fries on the side - or some other type of potatoes.  Provide a large side bowl for the empty shells and a soup spoon for the delicious broth.  And some good hot French bread for dunking.

Serves 6.

Goes perfectly with a dry Grave or a Muscadet, but my personal favorite is a Pouilly-Fumé.  All whites, of course.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Liberation of Paris

  Seventy years ago today, Paris was liberated.
     On August 25, 1944, after five years of German Occupation, the Nazi commander and military governor of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, surrendered at the Hôtel Meurice, across from the Tuileries Gardens, one of the places where the French Résistance had started a revolt from the inside.  Enough time had been lost under the Occupation, the freedom fighters felt.  They refused to just sit by and wait for the Allied troops to free the city for them.
     A partial retreat of the German Army started on August 19th and people stayed indoors, so as not to give the retreating soldiers an excuse to vent their bad tempers.  But the streets didn’t remain deserted for long.  The FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur) - a term coined by French General de Gaulle from his wartime London HQ - took part in skirmishes throughout the French capital.  The Tuileries was one place of insurrection.  The Préfecture de Police on the Ile de la Cité was another one, and the pockmarks of the gun battle between the French and their Nazi overlords are still visible on the facade facing Notre-Dame.  General strikes erupted as of August 18th, but not in time to stop the last convoys to Buchenwald.  Résistance posters sprang up throughout the city.  Many heard the call; at least 1,000 lost their lives.
     Meanwhile, General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe, had his sights on Germany.  His intention was to head straight for the border, giving Paris a wide berth.  The French capital would take too much time and assets in guerrilla street-by-street warfare, he felt.  Plus he knew that Hitler had ordered Paris to be leveled rather than surrendered; the German army had already set fire to the Grand Palais, a stronghold of the Résistance.
     But de Gaulle, being characteristically de Gaulle, and fearing starvation and reprisals by the Nazis, said that, should Eisenhower do that, he would give the order for the French 2nd Armored Division to liberate the city on its own.  He pointed out to the American general that the Communists had been the leading, and for the first years of the Occupation the only, organized force fighting the Nazis within France.  If Paris were not freed, the way would be open for the Communists to do it themselves and then take over the government.  (As it was, the Communist Party became a respected force in French politics for years after the war because of their role during the Occupation.)  Although the USSR and the USA were Allied partners in this war effort, the specter of the future Cold War was already perceptible.  De Gaulle’s arguments won out.  French Gen. Leclerc led the 2nd Armored Division toward Paris, then through the suburbs and into the capital itself.
     General von Choltitz surrendered at his hotel on August 25th, 1944, and Paris was still standing.  It was a happy day for Paris.

A play called Diplomatie covers the secret meeting between von Choltitz and Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling, at the request of the Résistance.  No one really knows what was said.  Perhaps, even without Nordling’s intervention, von Choltitz would have disobeyed Hitler’s order to reduce Paris to rubble and refused to detonate all those tons of dynamite placed under every bridge and every monument of the French capital.  But Paris was saved in the end, and that’s all that really counts.
     A movie has since been made with the same leading actors:  Niels Arestrup and André Dussollier.
      I wrote about that play in my blog on October 21, 2011.  You can go back and read it if you want:
Diplomatie, with André Dussollier & Niels Arestrup

Fittingly, perhaps, this blog about the city I love so much is Blog Number 200 of Sandy’s France.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Out & About: Exhibits: Paris 1900

At the turn of the last century, Paris held a party:  the Exposition Universelle. It was largely a celebration of France’s colonies around the globe, second only to England’s at that time.
     But above and beyond all the xenophobic look-at-me-aren’t-I-grand-ness of the message, the media made extensive use of a new art form:  Art Nouveau.  It was a new approach to architecture and art, and it found an echo in almost every other facette of society.  Clothing changed, and with it habits.  It was a new century, and it required new ways.
     The Petit Palais - the Beaux-Arts Museum of Paris - has composed a collage of those different facettes of life in 1900.  And it’s been a hit ever since it opened in April.

Anatole Guillot
The first room, dedicated to the Exposition Universelle, was a bit of a disappointment.  Two huge areas filled with photos and posters and such about the Expo.  My stomach suddenly sank as I started to fear that the whole show was about just that and nothing more.  There were various three-dimension friezes that displayed amazing craftsmanship, and a large poster of all the national pavilions was interesting, but the topic seemed a bit more historical than artistic for my tastes.  “This isn’t going to take long,” I thought.  But that didn’t jibe with all the praise I’d heard about the show from friends.  So I soldiered on.
Manufacture de Sèvres
     It soon became obvious that the first area was just an introduction because around the corner lay a room entitled Art Nouveau.  This is more like it, I thought.  Here were examples of how Art Nouveau translated into all forms of artworks.  There were lots of glassworks by the masters of the craft: Gallé, Tiffany, Daum...  Along with objects by Mucha, dresses by Worth, furniture by all the great names of the period, ceramics from the Manufacture de Sèvres and even a book on bull-fighting whose binding was the work of Goya himself.  Several display cases spotlighted women’s jewelry, and especially hair combs that held in place those elaborate turn-of-the-century hairdos.
Mother and child - Paul Troubetzkoy
     The following room was named Paris, Capital of the Arts. And it set about stating its case with myriad paintings, statues, photos and posters.  An unfinished head by Rodin showed how the famous sculptor worked up his masterpieces, layer by layer sometimes - a fascinating peek under the artistic skirts of a genius. And there were other masterful works here by names not familiar to me:  sculptor Paul Troubetzkoy and painters such as Albert Edelfelt, Tony Robert-Fleury or Eugène-Samuel Grasset.  It was the most museum-like of all the rooms and filled to the brim with wondrous examples of various versions of Art Nouveau.
     Then came a room called The Myth of the Parisian Woman.  As its name implies, the focus here was squarely on fashion.  Many cases displayed clothing of the era, from simple to elaborate.  But the reputation for Paris being the be-all-and-end-all of fashion was also backed up by photos as well as portraits of women who epitomized the Paris Look of the era.
     And once you’re all dressed up, where do you go?  Out!  Paris By Night, the next room, covered all the choices ladies - and their accompanying gentlemen, of course - had at their fingertips.  Vestiges of the panoply of theaters, music halls and other divertissements of France’s capital. My beloved Montmartre figured well here, with the Chat Noir cabaret and much Toulouse-Lautrec. But on the more seamy side, a small central room (womb?) crystallized the ladies of the night for whom Paris was notorious, with period nudie postcards and even a strange chair from one of the rich men’s brothels.  Quite an education, this room.
     The last room was Paris en scène, focusing on the silver screen through posters and photos.  In a side room looped the 1902 Méliès short film Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), which amazed movie-goers of the period.  Not content with just telling a story - here one by Jules Verne - Méliès was the master of the very first special effects.
     Each of these rooms was separated from the next by a dark and narrow passage with mirrors on one side and film running on the other.  A kind of introduction into the upcoming matter.  A nice touch.
     The pieces in this remarkable exhibit come not only from the Petit Palais’ own fine collection of Beaux-Arts but also from other Paris museums that focus on this period of art history:  the Marmottan and its collection of Monets, the Orsay, which covers the Impressionism period from start to finish, and the Carnavelet, which specializes in the history of Paris.  It also includes artworks graciously on loan from private collections and from museums abroad.
     My friends were right in their praise.  This is a show that should figure high up on any list of exhibits to be seen.

A suggestion:  afterwards, to stay in the Art Nouveau mood, head for a meal at the Gare de Lyon’s Train Bleu or Mollard across from the Gare St. Lazare. Both have a décor that will bring what you’ve seen to life in a delicious way.

Paris 1900

April 2 - August 17, 2014

Petit Palais
Avenue Winston Churchill
75008 Paris
01 53 43 40 00
M° Champs-Elysées Clemenceau

Tuesday-Sunday 10-6, Thursdays to 10 pm
Closed Mondays and holidays

11 €, reduced 8 & 5.50 €

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Out & About: Exhibits: Joséphine

Some lives just flow along peacefully, like a calm brook running through green meadows.  And others are like raging rivers, a-boil with rapids and waterfalls crashing onto the rocks below.
     Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived on a tropical island.  She was called Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, which was much too big a name for a little girl so everyone just called her Rose, and sometimes even Yéyétte.  She lived happily on her family’s sugar plantation until hurricanes destroyed it. So her aunt did what people did in those days when they needed money; she married Rose off to a wealthy aristocrat in France. And at age 16, little Rose sailed across the Atlantic, leaving behind her family and her beloved island of Martinique to become Mme. Alexandre de Beauharnais.
   Rose’s aunt hadn’t done her a favor.  Her marriage to Alexandre was unhappy but fruitful. Two children were born:  Eugène after two years and then two years later Hortense.  When they were only 13 and 11, they were thrown in prison along with their mother, who was accused of being married to a noble, and what’s more a general who hadn’t defended the newborn Republic well enough in battle.  It was the Reign of Terror and Robespierre was feeding the guillotine daily.  One of the meals was Alexandre.
     Every day the guards would come to the huge, filthy, dark and promiscuous rooms where dozens and dozens of people were thrown together.  The guards had a list and would read off the names of those taken away to die.  No one ever knew if that morning would be their last. Marie-Josèphe and her children were held for over three months.  For 98 days, they waited every morning for their names to be called out by the guards.  Then on the 99th day, their names were called... and they were released.  But only because Robespierre had been fed to the guillotine himself.
     During those months, Marie-Josèphe would see, and perhaps do, things that people do when they think they are about to die.  It changed her to her very core.  Some say she became frivolous and of easy virtue.  But if you look at the way she lived her later years, you’ll know that it only made her wary of life, society and mankind in general.

Then someone introduced her to a young general from Corsica who fell madly in love with her, a short man with a huge desire to succeed.  He had a funny Italian-sounding name - Napoleone Buonaparte - and yet he found her name unacceptable and so he transformed Marie-Josèphe into Joséphine, married her and whisked her away on his mad dash to immortality, ultimately making her Empress.  And with it fulfilling a prophesy made to her back in her native Martinique: “You will be queen... no, more than queen.”
     Joséphine filled the role well.  She was cultivated where Napoleon was not and that lent him a distinction he wouldn’t have had otherwise.  She loved jewelry and was the setter of fashion, preferring a more natural look of flowing lines and what became known as Empire waistlines, soon adopted by all of France and much of Europe as well.  She sought a refuge from the imperial court - and perhaps from all the horrors remembered from those 99 days - preferring to live in the country.  And as Napoleon was often away fighting one battle or another, she bought a manor with land along the Seine River well downstream from Paris:  Malmaison.
     When Joséphine proved unable to provide Napoleon with children to carry on his legacy, the Emperor divorced her to marry someone who could. Malmaison was part of her bargain.  And it became her world.
     The house is still there, although the property surrounding it is only about a tenth of what it once was.  Buying up any land she could, Josephine put a buffer between her and the rest of society.  She did have illustrious guests though, such as Tsar Alexander I.  It was while showing him her gardens that she caught pneumonia.  Joséphine died four days later at age 51.

Two hundred years after her death, France is honoring her with two shows. One is at the Luxembourg Museum in Paris; the other is at her home outside the capital in Rueil-Malmaison.
     The show at the Musée du Luxembourg is small and consists mainly of items of Joséphine’s wardrobe, some pieces of furniture in the Empire style and artwork of her or owned by her.  A diamond-and-ruby brooch was particularly striking, as were the sapphire earrings next to it.  There are large placards retracing her life, as well as her actual birth certificate and divorce papers.  The exhibit is grandiose and spacious in its setting, which is rarely the case at the small Musée du Luxembourg but these items are rarely seen, so worth the time if you’re at all interested in the little island girl who became “more than a queen”. 
      The second show at Malmaison is also small and tightly focused on the love Rose Yéyétte always showed for flowers (and not just roses) as well as for animals, especially birds.  It is well documented by drawings of plants by Redouté, others of which are on display at the Musée du Luxembourg.  A highlight is the magnificent, sparkling robe embroidered not with silver thread, but with platinum!  At the end of the show it will be put away again and not seen by us common mortals for a few more decades, so that alone may be worth the entrance fee.  In addition to the artifacts, this exhibit has an artistic touch, with lace mobiles casting flowery shadows on the ceilings and walls, and it comes complete with a soundtrack of the birds that Joséphine loved so much.  The show takes up the top floor of the residence. 
     But the other two floors are well worth a detour.  On the ground floor are the public rooms:  the library and council chamber, the dining room and billards room, the sitting room and music room, which is delightfully sunny.  Upstairs are the private living quarters:  the Emperor’s apartment at one end, Josephine’s apartment at the other, and various rooms in between which must have seen a lot of traffic, given Napoleon’s love for his “Creole wife”.  These rooms are fully furnished and give an excellent idea of how Joséphine chose to spend her years both during and after life with Bonaparte.
     After that you can stroll through what remains of her property, enjoy the gardens and perhaps even visit the hothouse she had built.  Pick a nice sunny day to make the most of Joséphine’s little corner of paradise.


Musée du Luxembourg
19 rue de Vaugirard
75006 - Paris
Métro: Luxembourg or Rennes

until June 29, 2014
Daily 10 am to 7:30 pm
Mondays 10 am to 10 pm
11€ & 7.50€


Joséphine: La Passion des Fleurs et des Oiseaux
Musée national de Malmaison
1 avenue du Château
RER A to "Grande Arche", then bus 258 

until June 30, 2014
Daily 10 to 5:45
Tues, Sat & Sun 10 to 6:15
Residence and show closed 12:30-1:30
varied rates 6-8.50€ & 4.50-7€

I should have posted this before.  Now both shows are over.  BUT Malmaison is open year-round, so you can always see the residence and the gardens and the hothouse Joséphine created.  It's just outside Paris proper.